“Someone is missing,” Shaltiel murmurs, his head slightly tilted. No one has heard him.
Around the table, in the dining room, the guests are telling each other stories both related and unrelated to the circumstances uniting them that evening. The atmosphere is warm and joyous. How could it not be? Didn’t they come to celebrate the life of a man and the freedom of men?
Policemen and intelligence agents, Americans and Israelis, friends and members of Shaltiel’s family, they all feel they are entitled to it, to this privilege. They all suffered along with him, from close or from far away, often in secret; they all shared his anguish, or at least they were aware of it and it had left its mark.
“Le-Hayim,” says a big, bespectacled man with delicate hands as he raises his glass: “To life.” And they all join in. Yes, to life. To the right to life. Everyone’s right. To the joy of being with someone who was going to lose his life for unacceptable, absurd reasons.
Shaltiel runs his eyes over his friends, new and old. He is grateful to them all.
But someone is missing.
That’s the way it is and I can’t do anything about it.
Though I was surely born in joy, I have always lived in anguish.
In the basement, his thoughts catapult him into the past. So is this what a man’s life is all about? Moving from one shelter to another, both opening out on brutality, remorse and nothingness?
It’s only a dream, Shaltiel says to himself. An idiotic, senseless dream. As all dreams are. Inevitable and useless. Sometimes, we dream because we are anxious, and because we don’t understand.
I am walking in the mountains. In the midst of a crowd. I am moving forward with slow steps. I don’t know anyone. I have no idea why a strange instinct urges me to flee. Could the enemy be everywhere? I ask one person, then another: “What are we doing here?” A bearded old man replies: “It’s you I’m looking for.” He vanishes. A sad, dark-haired young woman replies: “It’s you who are waiting for me.” She vanishes too. A man with a gentle face says: “It’s you.” They all assert: “It’s you.” Behind them—it’s odd—a stranger with an intense gaze nods his head and flashes a knowing wink at me; I know he’s dead, but he’s walking with the others. And he says nothing. Suddenly my heart starts pounding madly: They’ve all vanished, except the dead person, and that’s me. I’m alone. And the mountains narrow in on me; they become me. And in my dream, I say to myself: It’s a dream. Is it mine? Not theirs? How am I to know?
Oh, to unravel the fabrics of dreams and fantasies that inhabit the prisoner, to disentangle the time and duration that engross philosophers, the conscience of the ascetic and the intuition of psychologists, the fire and anathema of moralists so they won’t turn into illusions and lies. Tell me, how is it done?
He is afraid: If he shuts his eyes, he plunges back into an unreal universe with people alive or dead. When he reopens them, the fear has not left him.
He remembers the pitch-black darkness, with red glimmers bearing misfortune, the sadness vying with astonishment; and, in the dream, his eyes fill with tears.
Who will speak of the role of fear in the torment experienced by the hostage who, on the level of fate or the gods, exists only for his executioners?
This tragedy, the very first of its kind, took place in 1975. It caused a considerable stir in the media at the time, in Jewish communities and in so-called diplomatic circles.
Shaltiel Feigenberg, a discreet man with no status or fortune, became famous all over the world.
But not for long.
Who remembers him today?
The buzzing in the ears.
The taste of ash.
The turmoil in my chest, the knot in my throat. The heartrending feelings and thoughts.
Like before? In a different way, possibly worse. Before, over there, the danger threatened us all. Here it feels like I’m the only target.
It’s the first day. Long, too long. Longer and longer. With few outside events. Where am I? In a large underground storage room? In a basement haunted by unspeakable villainies and curses? There are two bizarre individuals, their faces poorly concealed under hoods. Eventually they’ll remove them. Nowadays that would no longer be possible: Terrorists are determined to remain anonymous. In regaining consciousness, my first sensation was the pain in the nape of my neck. There was blood in my mouth. Few words were exchanged: name, address, telephone number. Surely they already knew the answers.
“Where am I?”
“Far away,” said a singsong voice.
“Who are you?”
“Your fate,” said the same voice.
Could this be some sort of prank, young students in search of thrills or the sensational? This is all unthinkable. Peaceful, innocent citizens aren’t supposed to be abducted.
They’re making a mistake, Shaltiel said to himself. They think I’m someone else. That’s the only possible explanation. They think I’m lying to them. That I’m not me but one of their enemies. Could a person’s identity be a mistake, an accident? A fatality? Freedom, a mental exercise? The life of a man, a sham? Sages compare it to a leaf trembling in the wind, a fleeting dream, the shadow of a bird or a cloud. Fine, as a moral warning that’s acceptable. But a cruel farce? Decided by whom? For what purpose?
What do they want from me? What have I done to them? Why are they bullying me so relentlessly?
“Whom do you know, among your Jewish friends, who’s rich and important? Talk, you fool, otherwise you’re dead! The Prophet’s sword is merciless! Names, give us names! Out with them! Jews, damn them, know influential people everywhere.”
Insults, curses, spit. But no blows, not yet.
The mental suffering, the violation of my inner world—why so much suffering once again?
Who are they? Who am I to them?
I don’t understand, I don’t understand a thing.
He passes a seemingly endless night. Crouched on the floor, sleep escapes him. A few interruptions, a few starts, more dreams and phantasmagorical visions: He is in a glass coach, drawn by several white horses, singing and drifting in a fierce wind toward massive mountains. Suddenly he realizes that children with petrified eyes have replaced the majestic horses.
What does that mean?
And this imprisonment, this isolation, what could they possibly mean? It’s all a large, diabolical chessboard.
Hungry? Not at all. Thirsty, yes. Very thirsty. And so exhausted that thinking seems impossible.
No doubt it is daybreak somewhere, for the noises from the outside are becoming more audible—the roar of cars, the calls of children.
So we’re close to a city. My guess is a suburb. As in the past? “Over there,” the danger came from outside, and no one would interfere. Here, who knows? Perhaps someone will notice something odd.
Oh yes, and the police. The police: the eyes and ears of any civilized community. Blanca must have told them.
Patience. Advice to my nerves: Be strong. To my heart: Calm down. And to my brain: Don’t panic. All of this will soon be solved. Tomorrow life will be beautiful.
Today starts off badly, though, with the first genuine cross- examination.
Shaltiel’s words are pitiful, mutilated, forced out painstakingly and grudgingly. He already knows that it’s been hours—long, sluggish hours—that he hasn’t been free. He’s been made a prisoner by strangers. Once again he is the victim of barbarity, but for what reason?
Deadened, assailed, his temples ache. Soon blood is going to flow, and will not stop. Can one drown in one’s own blood?
“Don’t be stubborn. You can’t fight destiny. We’re stronger than you. You’ll come to a bad end.”
“Where am I?”
“Who are you?”
“Your masters,” says a harsh voice. “Your life is in our hands.”
“Because it is,” says another voice, less harsh.
“When will you let me go?”
“When we win the war,” says the first voice, sniggering.
Restless children, elderly dreamers, the gods of love, his ungovernable demons, they are all swirling around in his throbbing head. Will he never again encounter them in freedom?
“But what do you want from me? Believe me! I swear on my own head, I don’t understand, I don’t . . .”
In the past, Shaltiel says to himself, a pious adolescent, I would have known what to do: I would have followed tradition and asked to establish a small Bet Din, a three-man court. I would have told them about my bad dream and they would have exorcised it by repeating the ritual incantation three times, “The dream you had is good, is good,” wishing me peace, happiness, maybe forgetfulness and everything else.
That was the past. Here, I don’t know anyone, except the angel of horror; he wears the mask of the executioner.
Where are Shaltiel’s loyal friends?
As if to tear himself away from the present, he recalls Nathanael’s story. Why him? Why not. When a tale comes to mind, there is no dismissing it.
It’s like the story from his childhood, far away from here. The story he had been told: Once upon a time, in a small Romanian or Hungarian town, depending on the period, or the fantasy of the rulers, there was a little Jewish boy living alone for several weeks in a Christian family. It was during the war. He was still alive, he said to himself, thanks to Ibolya, a blond and mischievous little girl of about ten. She had discovered him in the fields, asleep, famished and lost. She ran to fetch her mother, Piroshka, a flamboyant redhead with sparkling eyes. Mother and daughter brought him home, to a house on the edge of the forest. The father was at the Russian front. They called the little refugee Sàndor, but his real name was Nathanael: gift of God. Later, Shaltiel was to see him in a Jewish school in Brooklyn.
A dream that brings on dreams?
Jewish memories. Each more painful and scalding than the next, bound together and tightened by the same fist that points the way to shadows, silent and distorted by anguish. Shaltiel relives them and shudders, a lump in his throat.
His head is full of images of a boy, still young, who has feelings of embarrassment, even remorse, about growing up; words, dreams, sobs, stories, more or less muddled. In Europe, he cultivated them. In New York too. His father, Haskel, a peddler of old books and ancient documents in Brooklyn, wasn’t always at home; he was too busy trying to sell his merchandise, which the rich didn’t want and the poor couldn’t afford. His stepmother worked in other people’s houses. As a ten-year-old, Shaltiel spent his days in school, but he didn’t get to sit at the table with the other schoolboys; he sat apart, because the teacher felt the new immigrant was too young to learn to read the Aramaic texts, much less assimilate them.
But he learned them. By heart. In a low voice, cautiously, he would repeat what the tutor said, singing to himself: what Rabbi Akiba said, what Rabbi Ishmael replied. Hillel’s disciples said one thing, Shammai’s, usually obstinate, said another. The chess player within him, even at so young an age, was of great assistance in remembering and foreseeing their thoughts.
When the students had their snack, Shaltiel made do with a bowl of milk given to him by the tutor’s wife. One day, I’ll have buttered bread, which I’ll share with everyone, the child said to himself. And my father will be happy. And he’ll no longer be exhausted. This thought was enough to buoy him up in his solitude.
The evenings, when he could spend them by his father’s side, were a time of joy. Shaltiel admired and loved his father. To calm his son’s hunger, the father gave him almost everything he received. Actually, he was never hungry when they were together.
The best time for Shaltiel was when his father and he played chess, their mood serious and attentive. Both were anxious not to make an irreparable mistake. Shaltiel also liked it when his father talked him to sleep at night. He talked about everything, even about Shaltiel’s dead mother. The father would listen to his son recite his bedtime prayer and watch him sleep. The child, though, only pretended to sleep. He liked to feel his father’s gentle gaze caress his face. He felt it to the edge of drowsiness, while in his head he went over the chess games that were yet to be resolved. Over there, far away, he sometimes wondered whether God, on high, wasn’t playing chess with someone too, but with whom? Now that’s the great question.
Some weeks Shaltiel saw him only on the Sabbath. Exhausted by his trips, Reb Haskel would run to the Mikveh for his ritual ablutions, purifying himself so as to welcome the sublime Sabbath Queen fittingly. He was no longer the same man. His whole being would glow with a secret, beneficial light.
Together, hand in hand, united by ties that seemed indestructible, father and son went to a Hasidic shrine for the service. Along the way, his father asked him his usual question: “What have you done with your days and evenings during this whole past week, my dearly beloved son?”
“Whom did you listen to?”
“Reb Moshe-Hayim the Melamed, the tutor.”
“What did he say?”
“He said that our Sages not only knew how to express themselves well, but also how to listen well.”
“He said that God also listens, but He alone understands.”
Proud and happy, the father stroked his son’s head and said: “Remember that’s the most important lesson you’ll have learned in life.”
“Because, with it, you’ll be able to build palaces in time and cultivate gardens in your mind.”
And, after a silence, “Do you know, my son, that God conceived and created the world with twenty-two letters? And not just the visible world, but scores of others that aren’t visible. Later, you’ll learn about their power. Each one represents a superior and inflexible force. When you know how to assemble some of them, according to established but obscure rules, you’ll be powerful and victorious.”
Shaltiel kept his father’s words inside him. He knew they were true. With his father by his side, he feared and envied no one. Returning home on Friday nights, his father was radiant: He put aside his worries about health or money. The three candles on the table, one for each member of the family, the wine for the Kiddush, the two braided breads so skillfully and lovingly prepared by Malka, his stepmother—Shaltiel lived all week long for these moments. It didn’t matter that the meal was meager; it brought the three of them together at the same table, sometimes with his cousin Arele, savoring the little they had, united by a love that made their hearts glow. What more could they want?
Excerpted from Hostage by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 2012 by Elie Wiesel. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
ELIE WIESEL is the author of more than fifty books, both fiction and nonfiction. He is a recipient of the United States Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honor’s Grand-Croix, an honorary knighthood of the British Empire and, in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1976, he has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University.
“Wiesel takes us on a journey through dream, memory, and especially storytelling in Hostage . . . He continues to remind us of the brilliant possibilities of the philosophical and political novel.”
-Starred review, Kirkus
“[Wiesel’s] terse first-person, present-tense narrative will hold readers . . . With the intense contemporary action, the prisoner’s memories also bring close the sweep of Jewish history, including persecution and survival . . . Sure to spark discussion about Middle Eastern history and politics.”
“Wiesel takes us into the heart of the [hostage’s] experience: How do we survive in a universe where all logic, all reason, has been stripped away and we are at the mercy of chaotic forces? What is the effect on our humanity?”
-David L. Ulin, Chicago Tribune
“The strength of Hostage is Wiesel’s exploration of the psychology of being a hostage, as well as the complex nature of memory and its role in our lives . . . Fans of Wiesel’s strong prose who are looking forward to a return to familiar themes will be gratified.”